Feedback: Constructive criticism and other comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
The tailor - "Seamstress!" she barked, as Owen introduced her to the cast - was a harsh, small woman in a purple cardigan and yellow tartan skirt. She set up camp in the green room, with her measuring tape and notepad and told Jill to start sending in people as soon as possible, since she "had things to do and customers to see." Owen quickly made himself scarce.
Dana arrived bright and early, bone-weary from all the work she'd done the day before. Everything ached, but she had dragged herself home and fallen immediately asleep without any dreams of Gretchen. Backstage was abuzz with more busywork, but Gus had basically forbade her from doing anything after her marathon performance. He told her to sit down and relax and promised he'd call her if he had anything he needed dusted.
So she draped herself across the bed in what would be Bianca's bedroom and stared at the catwalks high above the stage. There was a lot of other busywork going on, but considering how she'd killed herself the day before, Gus wasn't asking her to volunteer for much. When it came time for her fitting, she dragged herself into the green room and planted herself in front of the tailor. She stood motionless, staring at herself in the mirror, as the tailor - "Seamstress!" the woman again barked at Owen - took her measurements.
When they were done, Owen gave Dana the number of a local hairdresser who specialized in period hairstyles. She would be the one styling all the hair for the production - except for Gretchen, who'd be wearing a wig - and he wanted all the actors to meet with her at least once so she could see what she was dealing with.
Dana took the card without comment and sleepwalked from the green room. She was so dazed when she walked in front of the stairs that she slammed into the person coming down. "God, I'm sorry," she muttered. She put her hands out and gripped the woman's shoulders. "Gretchen."
"Dana," Gretchen said. She smiled, but it seemed to falter before it reached her eyes. "H-hi."
"Hey. I thought you were scheduled at four?"
"I am, but I thought I'd stop by on my lunch period to see if there was a lull. I didn't exactly win points being late yesterday."
No, you really fucking didn't, Dana thought. She managed to smile, though, and said, "Well..."
The green room door opened and Owen stepped out. "Arthur Daley? Is Arthur Daley here?"
Someone from the direction of the stage said, "Haven't seen him."
"Perfect," Owen growled.
Dana stepped forward and gestured at Gretchen. "Your Alice is already here. If you want to just bump her up."
Owen brightened and said, "Lovely. Fate intervenes."
Ah, Dana mused. That old bastard again...
Gretchen said, "Looks like I'm right on time after all."
Dana nodded and let Gretchen go into the room alone. When the door closed, Steven came up behind Dana and said, "So...?"
Dana jumped and turned to face him. "What?"
He gestured at the door with his chin. "You and the new girl. What's going on there? Are you, uh...?"
"It's none of your business."
"The thing with Regan Duffy was none of my business, either. But that didn't stop you from regaling the entire bar with stories of your rendezvous." He frowned. "Rendezvi? Rendevouses?"
Dana blushed. "I don't know. I like her." She reached up and pushed her hair over her ears, a nervous habit she hadn't done since college. Since... well, Lisa again. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Whatever. Shut up."
Steven said, "Wow. Dana Purcell, flustered. I was going to tease you, but I think it's a little beyond the teasing point. How long has this been going on?"
"Nothing is going on," Dana said. She guided him to one side and lowered her voice so no one would overhear. "I barely know her. We met last... last Thursday? God, not even a week." She ducked her head and shrugged. "I don't know. We just barely kind of kissed once. I don't even know if she meant it like that."
Steven sighed. "This is like watching Casanova get googly-eyed. I mean, you're Dana Purcell! You don't settle down! We live vicariously through you."
"Yeah," she said quietly. The green room door opened and she slapped his arm. "Now, shush." Gretchen came out and Dana said, "Everything okay?"
"Yeah," Gretchen nodded. "Measurements, appointment with a wig maker..." She reached up and played with the strands of her short, short hair. "I'm kind of torn now. I didn't expect to be shuttled in right away. I kind of took the whole afternoon off."
Steven, who'd dropped all of his casual seriousness, said, "Don't let Gus hear you say that. He'll put you to work building sets or something equally heinous."
"I thought all the sets were up."
Steven squinted. "They can always be a little more up."
The stage door slammed open and Arthur Daley came rushing in. "Sorry, sorry," he said to the group clustered at the bottom of the stairs. "Had a last minute surgery that went a little longer than I expected. Couldn't be helped." He exhaled and looked around. "Is he very upset?"
Owen appeared and said, "Ahh, the errant Mr. Sutherland. Come, come, we'll fit you in. You're lucky Ms. Cole here happened to be early."
Daley nodded his head to her as he shuffled by and disappeared into the green room. Steven patted Gretchen on the back and said, "Looks like you're picking up points all over the place. Kind of makes you feel silly about yesterday, huh?"
Dana looked up. "What happened yesterday?"
Steven opened his mouth and tried to backtrack. "Oh. Nothing, just, uh... I'll... go see if Gus needs me to lift something heavy." He waved over his shoulder as he retreated.
Dana didn't give up so easily. She stepped in front of Gretchen, arms crossed over her chest. "What happened yesterday?"
"Nothing," Gretchen said, searching for something besides Dana's bare arms to focus on. She lowered her voice and said, "Steven, uh... I was sitting on the stairs crying when Steven saw me."
"Why were you crying?" Dana said. She reached out and brushed Gretchen's arm.
"You'll think it's stupid."
Gretchen sighed. Her heart was pounding and she wasn't sure she'd be able to say the actual words until they were out. "I was crying mainly because I'd missed you. You said to be here at one, and I waited until six because I didn't want to look too eager. I mean, after I kissed you, I was kind of vulnerable... I didn't want you to think I was... you know. Coming on to you or something."
Dana was stunned, but managed to say, "W-were you?"
Dana stammered for a moment and then realized they were standing in a very public area. "Come on," she said. She hooked her hand in Gretchen's elbow and guided her out towards the house. They walked all the way to the back and Dana chose two seats near the aisle for them. Gretchen sat down and slipped her hands under her thighs. Dana sat on the outside seat and sank down, planting her feet on the chair in front of her. She put her hand to her mouth and chewed on the thumbnail.
They watched the other actors wander back and forth on the stage. They were carrying rolls of fabric, most likely the sheets for the beds, curtains for the fake windows and throw rugs to give the illusion of carpeting. After a long silence, Dana said, "I don't do relationships."
"Okay," Gretchen said. She had her chin down against her chest and was playing with the bottom button of her blouse.
Dana shifted in her seat and said, "I've been thinking a lot about you lately, though."
Gretchen looked up. "You have?"
Dana shrugged. "I think if you wanted... I don't know. If you wanted to get together and do something, I'd be willing to give a relationship a second chance. Or even just... a date. Or two. It doesn't even have to be a relationship, really." She sighed and covered her face with her hands. "I'm really bad at this."
Gretchen smiled. "I think you're better than you think."
"You, uh... go on dates often? Do people still go to movies?"
"I think there's a dinner involved. I'm... really not sure."
"Looks like we're both going to have to take a refresher course, huh?"
Gretchen nodded. She tilted her head to the side. "But if we're both clueless, then how will we know if the other one messes up?"
Dana laughed. "That's a good point."
Gretchen shifted in her seat and looked up at the stage. "Set looks really good."
"Mm-hmm," Dana nodded. She chewed on her bottom lip and said, "Actually, if we hang around here, you'll probably get asked to work." She reached down and took Gretchen's hand to help her up. Neither of them mentioned she kept hold as they slipped down the aisle. "I'll take you on a little tour of the place. Make it look like you're busy."
"Sounds good," Gretchen laughed.
They went around to the backstage entrance. Gretchen hadn't been on this side of the stage before; she'd stuck mostly to the green room side. This side was a photo negative of the opposite side. It was the exact same layout, only flipped. The only difference was the missing stage door. In its place were a long ramp and a loading door for the really big set pieces, Gretchen assumed.
Dana turned on a light in what would've been the green room. There was a gold plaque on the door with Sofia Chambers' name on it. "This is usually where we do the read-through, but it looks like it's been changed." There was a vanity mirror surrounded by lights, a clothes rack, a love seat against the far wall and a small coffee table.
"Wow," Gretchen said. "Looks nice."
"Don't get your hopes up," Dana said. "Our dressing room is a row of hangers on one wall and a bench along the other wall. And you'll be changing with me and... huh. Well. I guess if Sofia's got her own dressing room, it'll just be you and me in the other one." She had an image of her and Gretchen, stripped down to their underwear in that tiny room and felt a blush rise in her cheeks. She looked at Gretchen in time to see her shy smile before she turned away.
"Of course, since it's just the two of us," she said quickly, "it shouldn't be too hard to, you know... avoid stepping on each other."
"Right," Gretchen said.
"Right," Dana said. She chuckled and grabbed Gretchen's hand again. She led her around the corner to the edge of the stage. A brunette woman was standing by the back wall, pacing slowly back and forth. Gretchen glanced at her and then turned her attention back to the tour. "Now, I don't want to freak you out, but every newbie has to be brought here at least once."
"Okay," said Gretchen. From the corner of her eye, she saw the brunette watching them.
"This is where they brought Maura Hunter the night she died."
Gretchen gasped and took an involuntary step backward. Dana held on tight and smiled. "Don't worry."
"What happened? Do you know?"
"No one really does," Dana said. She looked down at the concrete floor and said, "The last scene of Act 2 has Bianca hang herself. The actress wears a harness under her costume. The harness is connected to a sort of bungee cord that runs all the way up to the catwalk." She pointed to the latticework pathways high above their heads. "The scene is so dark the audience can't see the cord. Or at least they're supposed to pretend they can't. When the actress climbs onto the hope chest, the bungee cord is pulled taut and it becomes shorter than the noose. That way, the actress is held up by the shoulders instead of by the neck."
Gretchen shook her head. "Sounds complicated."
"It's really not. My first year at the theatre, I was up on the catwalk during the hanging scene. Went like clockwork."
"So what went wrong with Maura?" Gretchen glanced at the brunette and saw she'd vanished.
"The harness wasn't hooked up. She was hanging by the neck and the bungee cord was nowhere to be found."
"Where'd she go?"
"The hospital, I suppose. Or maybe straight to the morgue. I heard she was--"
Gretchen shook her head. "No, not Maura. The woman who was standing over there." She pointed at the corner of the stage. It was a narrow, small area flanked by black brick walls on two sides. The woman would either have had to walk out on stage or walked directly towards where Gretchen was standing. She looked up; maybe there was a way up to the storage area that she couldn't see.
"Just now. There was a woman standing there. Brunette, wearing a..." She stopped herself mid-sentence. The woman had looked like the pictures of Maura she'd seen online. "Oh, hell..."
"Brunette, green eyes, wearing a period costume?"
Gretchen's hand tightened around Dana's. "This is getting too spooky."
Dana put her free hand on Gretchen's shoulder and gently massaged it. "Hey, don't worry. Remember, Maura is a friendly ghost."
"Still, I'd rather be... elsewhere right now."
"Sure," Dana said. She led Gretchen out onto the stage and through the Sutherland's kitchen door. None of the chairs had been set out, so Dana climbed onto the dining room table and patted the spot next to her.
Gretchen got onto the table and looked warily at the curtains. "So you guys see Maura a lot?"
Dana hesitated. "I wouldn't say a lot. There are stories every year, but most of those are made up. You know, to scare the newbies. But... I don't know if there's ever been a newbie who saw her as many times as you have."
"Great," Gretchen said. "I'm being stalked by a ghost."
Dana laughed and rubbed Gretchen's back. She looked out at the house and said, "Hey, Gus isn't letting me work on anything and we've both already seen the tai-- the seamstress. Do you want to get out of here? Go for a drive, maybe get some lunch?"
"Lunch would be wonderful," Gretchen said.
Dana hopped down off the table and again took Gretchen's hand to help her down. "What sounds good?"
"Anywhere that doesn't have ghosts."
"I think I could find a place like that," Dana laughed. "Come on."
The hostess at Gail's Seafood Shack smiled as she approached the podium. "Hi!" she said, making it a two-syllable word. "Two for lunch? Smoking or non?"
"Non-smoking," Dana said. "But we have to ask... do you have any ghosts?"
The smile wavered and the hostess glanced at Gretchen. "Ghosts? Like... on the menu?"
"No, in the restaurant," Dana said. "Is this place haunted?"
Gretchen buried her face in her hands.
The hostess said, "N-no. No ghosts... I could ask the manager..."
"Please don't," Gretchen said. She nudged Dana with her elbow.
"Right this way," the hostess said. She took two menus from the slot next to her podium and led them into the restaurant. The lunch rush was over, but a few tourists had decided to await the ferry inside the restaurant rather than in their sweltering cars. They were led to a two-top table not far from where Dana had cried a few days ago. She hoped she would have a different waitress or, barring that, she wouldn't remember the crying woman who'd been sitting in her area.
They ordered their drinks as they sat - water for Gretchen and an iced tea for Dana - and waited for their waitress to make herself known. Gretchen fiddled with the edge of the menu and glanced occasionally around the half-empty restaurant. There was some murmured conversation, but it only enhanced the silence coming from their own corner of the room. She smiled to Dana and said, "So, uh..."
Dana nodded. "You can say that again."
Gretchen laughed. "Sorry."
"No, no, don't be. I didn't mean to be sarcastic. I'm not good at this. I don't usually do dates like this."
"How do you usually do them?"
Dana shifted uncomfortably. "This is kind of the first date-date, like 'go to a restaurant' date that I've been on in ages. I usually just... you know... skip the date part." She ducked her head and blushed.
"Oh," Gretchen said.
Dana picked up her napkin and began tearing it into narrow little ribbons. "How about you?" she asked, to change the subject. "Why haven't you been on a date in however long?"
"I realized I was gay in high school. Freshman year. I realized how, you know... serious it was... and I started hanging around with her. Between classes, at her locker, you know. And finally, I gathered up the courage to tell her how I felt. I was shaking. I felt like I was going to throw up. But I told her. She let me down easy, you know, the polite thing. Made me feel okay about being rejected. I thought that was that. I'd been turned down and it hurt, but I'd make it through it."
Dana nodded. "But...?"
Gretchen bowed her head. "But the girl went to church with my parents. She told her Mom, who told my Mom. There was this whole... intervention-type ambush when I got home from school one day. They sat me down, told me that I was just confused. All kind of stupid stuff you'd expect from parents. That summer, I went to a Reparative Therapy camp where they tried to cure me."
"Wow," Dana winced. "Was it awful?"
Gretchen shrugged. "After I came home, I let Mom and Dad think it had worked. It just meant I couldn't have girlfriends, but I was too scared to ask anyone out anyway."
"Not even in college?"
"I'm a clerk at a store called Funky Junk," Gretchen said. "I didn't go to college."
Dana blushed. "Oh. Sorry."
"Don't be. But no, not until I was twenty-two. I lost my virginity to a girl I met in a bar in Seattle. After that, there's been a couple of girls here and there, but mostly on the mainland. Few and far between. What about you?"
"Far from few," Dana said reluctantly. "And hardly far between. I'm, ah... kind of..."
"I was going to say slutty," Dana said. "But your word works, too. My first girlfriend was my college roommate Lisa. It ended after she said she loved me and I didn't... I wouldn't say it back."
Gretchen softly asked, "Why didn't you?"
Dana shrugged, focused on making a pile of tiny napkin ribbons. "It's hard for me to say that. I..." She shook her head. "I don't like the hurt."
"It hurt like hell," Dana said. "I figured if I didn't say it, it would hurt less when we separated."
Gretchen frowned. "Why would you have to separate?"
"She was my first girlfriend. Who stays with their first girlfriend? Their first lover?" She shook her head. "It made sense at the time, anyway. Since then, I've kind of seen love and falling in love as a pitfall. If I can avoid getting to that point, then I can avoid the hurt." Her frown deepened and made a divot in the skin between her eyebrows. "I've never actually said it out loud, but... it all made sense in my head. If I avoided getting to the point where emotions were involved, I could never get hurt again. Kind of stupid, I suppose."
The waitress chose that moment to arrive with their drinks. They ordered and Gretchen waited until the woman had left to speak. "It's not stupid. I mean, you can call yourself slutty, but at least you weren't alone." She turned her head and looked out at the harbor.
"Don't be so sure," Dana said. "I was having sex a lot." She blushed, but pushed on. "But I wasn't... the point was not to have a connection. So in a way, I was just as lonely as you were."
When Gretchen turned, she saw Dana was staring at her. They locked eyes for a moment and then, finally, Gretchen smiled. "Wow. I thought you were this... bright, unattainable star. And, well... maybe we're not so different."
"Maybe that's why I was so drawn to you. We met for, what, five seconds? And after that, I couldn't stop thinking about you."
"Me too!" Gretchen blurted. She cleared her throat and brushed a hand through her hair. "I-I mean, I've been thinking a lot about you, too."
Their food arrived and Dana thanked the waitress. While they ate, they exchanged random facts about their families and upbringings. Dana was born on the island and had left for college. When she graduated, she moved back - "I tried living on the mainland, but there was just too much... space. I'm used to island life, I guess" - and got started in the theatre she had grown up in.
"What are your plans for the future?"
Dana shrugged. "I want to act. As long as I'm on the island, I'll be happy at the Rose. Until recently, I thought I had job security there. Now I know I'll only be safe until my paycheck gets too unwieldy. Kind of a rude wake-up call."
Gretchen twisted a noodle around her spoon. "So... I guess you'll be leaving the island someday?"
"Maybe," Dana said. She pushed her chicken around her plate. "If I want to make it as an actress, I can't exactly stick around here for the rest of my life. The Rose is great, but it's... the Rose. It's a good place to start, but I wouldn't want to grow old here. What about you? Were you planning on being a clerk at Funky Junk your whole life?"
"Well, no, I guess not. I hadn't given much thought to the future." She looked back over the past couple of years and saw a whole lot of routine. Up in the morning, down to Funky Junk, back home, then a couple hours of TV or reading before bed. Not a whole lot of variation, not a lot of moving forward. She bowed her head. "I guess maybe I was planning on... I don't know. Something coming along and sweeping me off my feet."
Dana chuckled. "Well. Consider yourself swept, Miss Alice Sutherland."
Gretchen laughed. "I don't know if this is exactly my calling. I'll do the one play, but... what if I'm not any good?"
"Oh, please. Try that with someone who didn't see you totally nail your audition. You're going to do great in this play, Gretchen. And if you decide not to audition for the next one, well... it's better to leave the audience wondering 'what happened to that lovely actress' rather than 'why won't she just retire already?'"
As they finished their meal, Gretchen explained her life story. After the 'straight camp,' as she called it, she laid low until she was eighteen. She took what little savings she had and put a down payment on the Schroeders' guest house. That had wiped her out, so she went around town angling for whatever job she could get. She worked the counter at Coffee Table Books, played go-fer for the mayor and was a civilian aide to the sheriff.
"That must've been interesting."
"Mm, yeah," Gretchen said. "One time, this guy called to complain that his neighbor had stolen his wallet."
"Mm-hmm. Big investigation. CSI: Squire's Isle."
"Did you find it?"
"Yeah. In the pocket of his other pants."
Dana laughed and leaned back. "A million stories in the naked city, huh?"
Gretchen smiled. "That got a little too... I don't know. Stifling, maybe? It was just a lot of running back and forth, filing, typing. So I got the job at Funky Junk and never looked back. Or at least I haven't looked back yet."
"Well," Dana shrugged. "You seem to have moved around a lot. Maybe acting is just the next step."
"Maybe. I just wish sometimes I could stop stepping. Settle down, you know?"
Gretchen pushed the rest of her food around and then pushed her plate away. "I'm done. Are you...?"
"Yeah, I'm full. Do you want a ride back to the theatre?"
"No, I should get back and give Barbara a hand at the store. It's walking distance, so..."
"Okay. Well... remember, if you ever need a ride to rehearsals..."
Gretchen nodded. "I remember. Thank you."
Dana paid the check and they walked out to the boardwalk. Dana fumbled in her purse for her car keys. "I guess I'll see you Thursday at the first rehearsal," she said.
"If not before."
Dana smiled. "Yeah, if not before."
They said good-bye a few more times before they separated. Gretchen stuffed her hands into her pants pockets and smiled at every tourist she passed. The clouds had lifted, the sun was a little brighter in the sky and her heart was light in her chest. All the misunderstandings from yesterday had been cleared up, her friendship - relationship - with Dana was up on its feet... The words "if not before" had never sounded so sweet to her.
To be continued in Chapter Eleven...
Return to the Academy